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Occupy Movement Has Historical Roots

You may know by now that the Occupy LA encampment lived to fight again. Protesters defied an anticipated 12:01am eviction, and while a few were arrested for blocking the street at 1st and Main, there was not the wholesale eviction expected by the police. Currently, the encampment is in violation every day after 10:00pm, but there are no plans for a raid at this time. The protests were largely peaceful and the cops did not use the tactics seen at other Occupy encampments across the country.

My thoughts on all of this, and the attendant hand-wringing by those who want to essentially recreate the Occupy movement in their image of what will best connect with the public, is that we all need to step back and learn from history a bit. While occupying a public park or other physical space would appear to be a novel escalation of national discontent, it has actually accompanied other eras of frustration and rage throughout history. Unemployed Americans marched on Washington after the Panic of 1893, forming what was termed Coxey’s Army after Jacob Coxey, the leader of the protest. The Bonus Marchers did the same, seeking their World War I bonuses, and they occupied parts of Washington before getting booted by Gen. Douglas MacArthur. In 1968, the Poor People’s Campaign pledged to camp out in Washington, using actual sharecropper’s domiciles to build a shanty-town called “Resurrection City,” in a bid to achieve better economic outcomes. We will never know the potential success of this event, because Martin Luther King Jr., one of the lead organizers, was shot just before the start of the occupation, and the campaign never regained momentum. The Flint sit-down strike was a non-Washington example of occupations, an event most mirrored by the 2008 takeover of the Republic Windows and Doors building by the workers. And that brings us to the point that there are RECENT antecedents to Occupy Wall Street – the bank accountability campaign, actual protests on Wall Street in 2009 and 2010, the anti-foreclosure direct action movement, and so on.

The point is that there’s nothing particularly new about the premise of occupation. There’s also nothing new about the response – these have historically always caused a reaction by the authorities that led to arrests, beatings, and dismantling of the occupation sites. But in no case did that temper or end the movements which led to the occupations themselves. The common thread underlying these occupations is that they have come at a time of profound economic dislocation, and they heralded a new era of reforms aimed at ameliorating the situation. Coxey’s Army and the protests of the turn of the century occurred hand-in-hand with the Progressive Era; the Bonus Marchers and Flint sit-down strike happened during the Depression; the Poor People’s Campaign adjoined both the civil rights movement and the Great Society reforms. This always happens, in other words. And those occupations never defined the movements they inspired. The movements always multiplied and innovated and went beyond sitting down for rights.

It’s undeniable that this current occupation movement has shown that the right to assembly is under threat, and if you cannot assure this basic right, good luck with the economic agenda that undergirds the occupations. But that’s been true to a degree throughout history. People have been beaten, attacked, assailed, and physically removed for speaking out against injustice, for exercising the basic right to protest. This has arguably become more militarized in recent years, but the dynamic has always been there.

And so have the results. Occupation movements have always existed parallel to a larger movement that did eventually secure a series of rights and protections for the disenfranchised. John Heilemann has this cockamamie story about how Occupy Wall Street will bring us back to 1968, because for everyone in the traditional media, it’s always 1968. But a survey of the historical record shows that the more likely scenario is that this inspires a mass movement that leads to progressive reform, as it always has. The pendulum is swinging back from a time of Gilded Age stratification. This is a familiar theme and you’d think people with any sense of history would be aware of it.

This is also why I am disinclined to offer helpful hints to the Occupy protesters, or a game plan on how they should go about achieving or even determining their goals. The movement energy around occupations has always sustained itself and built a reform agenda. Mother Jones was a Coxey marcher. It’s endemic to a movement like this that it draws the activists most focused on progress and provides a space for them to figure out how to get there. Nobody on the sidelines has any better insight. So the best option is to just shut up and watch history take flight again.

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David Dayen

David Dayen

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